David Boaz (that's not
him at left) has a must-read post
at the The Cato Institute's blog about how we live in a wondrous technological age — and proof comes in that cell phone you have laying on the table over there. What was the key to bringing this about? The break-up of the government-imposed monopoly known as Ma Bell, and deregulation of the telecommunications industry in general.
Boaz leads off with a story that anyone born in the pre-digital age knows well. Paraphrasing: You go over the river and through the woods to visit grandma on Sunday. Then, after dinner, you head home. Grandma wants to know that everyone got home OK, but she insists you don't incur long-distance charges by placing an actual phone call. Nope. You'd call grandma and let the phone ring twice ... then hang up. That was the signal that everyone got home OK. Even in the late '80s and early '90s, my Mom and I had the same system.
Anyone born around 1980 — that's a 30-year-old today (ugh) — would think such a story is as antiquated as receiving an "It's a Boy!" telegram at the door from a fellow in a sharp outfit accentuated by a pill-box hat. Boaz puts it in perspective:
Today there are some 4.6 billion mobile phones in the world, and counting, or about 67 per every 100 people in the world. The newer ones allow you to carry in your hand more computing power than the computers that put Apollo 11 on the moon. You can cruise the internet, find your location with GPS, read books, send texts, pay bills, process credit cards, watch video, record video, stream video to the web, take and send photos — oh, and make phone calls from just about anywhere. Unimaginable just a few years ago.
Makes you feel like a bit of a jerk for complaining that the 3G network your cell provider gives you is a little spotty at your favorite bar, huh? We are so spoiled by the technological wonders of the age that interest groups have surfaced whose sole purpose seems to be stoking and exploiting such ungrateful foolishness.
Groups like Free Press
and Public Knowledge
endlessly complain that the free market that has brought us the ability to make a phone call from a subway station
is failing. Worse, the market is abusing we poor consumers who only yesterday crawled out of the technological cave of "two-ring" code calls to grandma. They advocate a return to the era where government micromanages our technological lives through a return of the heavy regulatory era we left behind to our enormous benefit — in service, reliability, lower prices and innovation unimaginable just a few years ago. Brought to you, again, by allowing fierce market competition to do its magic.
Boaz laments with some exasperation:
This is an old story. Markets, property rights, and the rule of law provide a framework in which technology and prosperity soar, and some people can only complain. I was reading some of Deirdre McCloskey’s forthcoming book Bourgeois Dignity this week. She points out that the average person lived on the equivalent of $3 a day in 1800. Today there are six and a half times as many people, but the average person earns and consumes 10 times as much, far more than that in the most capitalist countries. And yet some people, most leftist intellectuals, continue to ignore what McCloskey calls “the gigantic gains from bourgeois dignity and liberty” and to denounce the markets, economic liberalization, and globalization that have liberated billions of people from eons of back-breaking labor.
I'd love to come up with a clever rejoinder to such an absurdly titled symposium, but it's hard to top Boaz:
Maybe we should hold a forum titled “Can You Hear Me Now? And Watch Me on Video? And Read My Book on Your Handheld Device? And Check Your Blood Pressure and Glucose? How Markets, Innovation, and Entrepreneurs Have Taken Cell Phone Technology from Clunker to Computer in Barely a Generation.”
Indeed. This is why all the fools I see on Twitter take the bait
by saying, "I just told Washington to stand with me and Obama for Net Neutrality — now it's your turn," drive me crazy. Forget the details of what Net Neutrality is all about.
All you really need to know is that the drive to get the Federal Communications Commission to impose Net Neutrality rules on the technology industry will put the government back in charge. It will require the technology industry to play "Mother May I?" with the government, and choke the innovations that have brought us today's amazing modern telecommunications products — all the stuff we now take for granted and find things to complain about.
As Boaz says, letting the "sluggish, coercive institution of government" get back in the game — in this or any industry — "usually ends in tears." If that happens, then we'll really have something to complain about. And I, for one, might need a hanky.